We’ve all done it: spent the (Department) meeting going through administrative, logistical or arcane tasks that could/should have been an email. Having been frustrated with that experience, I wanted to try and shift the narrative, and had three real objectives:
- With a lot of personal Twittering and reading, there were lots of ideas I wanted to discuss with colleagues. My school culture isn’t research-heavy yet, and the wider discussions don’t always apply to us – so if I wanted to have exciting discussions about these kinds of things, I needed to create the space to do so.
- With an NQT joining the Department, I wanted to be able to build and enhance my strong belief in a culture of ‘no surprises’. I wanted us to be clear on where we were going, what was coming up, what might help and change, and the kinds of things that we needed to be working on when. I don’t like being forced to do sub-par quality work at the last minute, and I refuse – where possible – to generate that for the Department. I also remembered how helpful it was to have someone lighting the way when I was new to teaching – showing me what was coming next.
- With three very different teachers and styles, I wanted to be able to have some sense of what we were all doing together and in our classrooms. I teach with an open door policy – but frankly, not everyone has time to come and see my lessons and make sure they’re doing something similar to me, or is in about the same place with the Year 10 economic unit, for example.
I was conscious of my own focus on structures and process – I tend to try and solve the situational problem, rather than the people problems – and concerned about the potential opportunity cost involved.
What we did:
- Before each term begins, I go through the school’s calendar, and flag up the main things that I need to share. This is distributed as a termly agenda to my Department:
- Some items go in a “school” column: Open Days, events, Parents’ Evenings, times where significant numbers of a year group might be absent etc., together with the major non-negotiable deadlines for assessment and reporting.
- Some items go in a “Department” column. Things like common assessments, or internal work deadlines, or field trips that we are leading tend to be important in driving our meeting and work focus. They go in separately to the whole school stuff – both in terms of our ownership of it, and in terms of the solidity of the deadline!
- We then have a column for key things to focus on in each meeting. It might be reviewing our students and talking about what we can do. It might be a teaching and learning idea or philosophical debate (reading around booklets, for example), or it might be walking the team through the upcoming fieldwork exercise or learning shift. This is also a time where responsibility can be shared – who is leading the meeting component, and what do they need to prepare.
- This sets the overall framework of the term. It is rarely varied. If I do my job right, then there is no need for us to react and firefight to changing situations and needs. If something comes up that we haven’t anticipated, we can obviously add it in – but that’s quite rare.
- At the front of this document (tends to be 2-3 pages total – some of the staff will print it, but not always), there’s a “what are we trying to do this term” list, which defines what the main Department challenges are, and outlines some of the specific detail on how to produce that outcome. Again, I’m quite conscious that there’s no point being the only person who knows what success looks like for x, y or z.
- Each week, I will then send out a Department meeting agenda. It’ll have the main ideas and outcomes that have previously been defined by the termly agenda for the meeting. It also has a “where are we?” page, broken down by year group. For each, a couple of bullet points summarise where we’re at – unit, specification, component, assessment, or what we are likely to be working on this week. It’s not prescriptive – I don’t care if people are precisely in step, because we lose lessons/have different timetables etc. – but it gives a wider sense of timing and what we’re trying to do. This agenda is sent out the week before the meeting, and helps people to plan the week ahead.
What went well:
- I think the first success is that it has been physically completed – I’ve managed to be able to produce the termly plans, think about the overview of the meeting agenda – and then distribute it weekly to staff. It probably takes about an hour of my week each time; and I think that’s time well spent to give me a sense of the Department’s progress.
- Linked to that, the other measurable follow up has been that we – as a Department – simply haven’t missed any deadlines or major events. Obviously, there’s a correlation not a causality – but it’s helpful for us all to be reminded of what comes where and what’s coming up soon. We have genuinely built a culture of no surprises, and I’m very proud of that.
- With the key administrative requirements sent out as an email, we have increasingly been able to have conversations about teaching, learning and students in our meetings. Staff can read the emails at their own pace and time, keep them on file, and come back with questions. In our meetings, people are much more ‘present’ – very little scribbling of notes and reminders of what needs to be done happens. I can share blog posts, reading and ideas through this, and slowly increase the research engagement of my Department.
- Tangential bonus – where staff have been out or covering, we’ve all been able to have a sense of what is what is meant to be happening, what kind of place people are likely to be, and what’s coming up.
What we are still working on:
- There are some major concerns. First, I am conscious that it’s very much operating under the premise of my leadership in a top down style. I don’t like that in principle, but sometimes think that part of my job should be to protect, prepare and make it as easy for my team to do their jobs as possible – a modified version of servant leadership, if you like that phrase. Should it be different? Should I relinquish control? Am I controlling, or just moving the information to those who need it? There’s some wonderful debate by David Marquet on this theme in “Turn the Ship Around” and his TED talk, if you haven’t encountered either.
- Second, the inevitable query is whether people really read the bulletin rather than just wait for someone to check and tell them. Its always quite difficult for me to ask that question, and get an honest and true answer, but I think mostly they are used broadly in the way that they are intended.
In the overall judgement, then, this is something that is very much something I will continue working with next year. It has been useful for me and the distribution of information, and I think fairly helpful to support the Department in focusing on teaching, learning and the great Geography we’re trying to do!